She calls herself a “proud native of the Bull City and a product of Jordan High School.” She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2009.
Now, the young woman but seven years out of college works exhaustively every day downtown near Brightleaf, where her job places her front and center in refugee resettlement here.
She’s Ellen Andrews, director of the Church World Service (CWS) Durham office. These days, especially as relates to the people of Syria, bringing refugees to North Carolina and the country has become highly sensitive and controversial.
Gov. Pat McCrory said he wants the flow of Syrian refugees to North Carolina to halt, calling it a matter of safety for citizens. Some politicians have said ugly, unwise things.
And there in the vortex locally are Andrews and her team, pushing ahead no matter the heat or harangue. I interviewed Andrews about the work. The talk has been edited for brevity.
The last months must have been incredibly challenging.
Andrews: Refugee resettlement is a fast-paced job all of the time. Six months ago if someone asked me what I did and I told them, they’d ask what a refugee is. Now, everyone knows. This is a different brand of hectic.
Why have so many governors, in your view, taken very harsh positions on Syrian refugees in their states?
Andrews: I believe they were spoken out of fear and a lack of understanding. It’s normal to be afraid of terrorism, but we must not equate refugees fleeing terrorist activities with the terrorists themselves.
What is your reaction, from the gut, your heart and your mind?
Andrews: No one wants to make sure that refugees are carefully screened more than the people who work in resettlement. Viscerally … I feel shock and disgust at some of the bigoted, prejudiced, blatantly inaccurate things I’ve seen, particularly some people who identify themselves as leaders in this nation.
The amount of hateful activity their words have inspired is devastating. It’s just been very, very emotional.
What happened to lead you to this kind of work and commitment?
Andrews: I just fell into this job and never looked back. Every day, we are reminded of the awful things that people can do to one another. And every day, we are inspired by the resilience of the people putting the pieces back together.
This work isn’t for everyone, but if it is for you … it’s hard to think about doing anything else.
Every day, we are reminded of the awful things that people can do to one another.
Ellen Andrews, Church World Service
Do you talk to the U.S. government about security concerns, situations you feel they should know about?
Andrews: If such a situation were to come to our attention we would absolutely report it to the appropriate entities. Refugee resettlement and national security can and do co-exist – we do not have to choose between them.
Have you or your organization been threatened?
Andrews: We have received a few email and phone messages that were very nasty, but no explicit threats. We’re taking appropriate precautions.
What is so special about Church World Service?
Andrews: Our commitment to promoting peace and justice around the world and empowering refugees to build new lives characterized by hope and dignity.
Tell me about your staff in Durham.
Andrews: Next to the clients we serve, refugee resettlement workers are some of the toughest people out there. Every staff member at CWS has the ability to dig deep, accomplish the impossible, think outside the box, to wear a smile and find joy in their work.
Have former political refugees contacted you to discuss their safety?
Andrews: There’s certainly concern. How could they not be afraid? Unfortunately, they are right to feel that way.
Tell me about those everyday citizens who help.
Andrews: I’ve never been more proud of the Triangle community. We value diversity and promote tolerance.
We’ve seen some of the first refugees we resettled in Durham buy houses and become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Refugees are residents who go to work, to school, pay taxes, provide community service. There’s a lack of appreciation for how much alike we are as human beings.
What else would you like to tell me?
There are real people who have been lost in some of the recent discussion. People who worry themselves sick, every day, thinking about loved ones still residing in extremely dangerous parts of the world. People who bear the scars – emotional and physical – of their story. People who are amazing, inspiring survivors.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at email@example.com or 919-219-0042.